Earlier this year, Washington State enacted the Washington Voting Rights Act (WVRA). Under previous state law the majority of Washington’s local governments were required to use at-large voting in general elections. So, the same majority of voters can decide the result for every council or school board seat in a town, city, or county. As a result, some communities, particularly communities of color, do not have a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice – candidates who will advocate for their needs in local government.
The problem has led to successful lawsuits under the federal Voting Rights Act that have changed the election systems in Yakima and Pasco. But such federal litigation is very time-consuming and costly – both for communities seeking fair representation in government and for the jurisdictions that are sued.
The new law promotes healthy democracy by empowering people at the local level to work with their elected representatives to ensure all voices in the community are heard. It offers a process under state law to fix unfair election systems and gives every voter a fair chance to elect candidates of their choice. At the same time, it offers local jurisdictions a collaborative process for changing outdated election systems and a clear opportunity for them to avoid litigation. It provides a roadmap for local governments to create their own solutions to meet local needs. The WVRA removes the restriction under state law that prevents local governments from changing their election system. Its provisions allow local governments ample time to act before going to court. The WVRA requires people and groups who bring challenges to election systems to provide notice before they file a lawsuit and establishes a pathway for local officials to work together with those bringing the challenge to address the problem voluntarily, hopefully without costly litigation.
This is where you come in. Community members are key to the successful implementation of the WVRA.
How It Works
As of July, local governments (school boards, county councils, city and town councils, fire commissions, port commissions, public utility districts) may invoke the authority granted to them under the WVRA to implement a district-based election system, and/or other remedies that satisfy a potential WVRA violation, unless they have fewer than 1,000 residents (or less than 250 students in the case of a school district).
In order to do so, the local government must follow this process:
- Provide public notice (if five or more percent of the population or 500 or more residents, whichever is fewer, do not speak English, this notice must involve outreach in languages other than English through venues likely to reach non-English speakers), including at least one public hearing to review the proposed plan.
- A districted election plan may establish districts with evenly distributed populations, be reasonably compact, be geographically contiguous, coincide with existing natural barriers, keep communities of interest together in a district,
- If a remedy is adopted, the plan must be implemented at the next general election, and if redistricting is necessary, must be done so based on Census data.
Any voter who resides in the jurisdiction can issue a challenge to that jurisdiction’s election system, and the notice of a challenge must include contact information, identify the community that has been disenfranchised in the current system, and provide a proposed remedy. The jurisdiction must work in good faith with the voter who files the challenge. If the jurisdiction adopts the proposed districting remedy, it must seek a court order acknowledging that the remedy will address lack of equal representation. The jurisdiction may then move forward with the new election system. If a challenge has been submitted, and 180 days have passed without a response, any resident of that jurisdiction may file an action in court. A trial must be held within one year of filing.
Democracy works best when everyone is engaged and has an opportunity to have their voice heard. OneAmerica and our sister organization OneAmerica Votes will be working with a broad coalition of allies to identify opportunities to work with local governments to shift their election systems to increase representation from under-represented communities.
If you are interested in filing a challenge to your election system, send us a note to email@example.com.
For a more detailed analysis see: http://lawfilesext.leg.wa.gov/biennium/2017-18/Pdf/Bill%20Reports/Senate/6002-S.E%20SBR%20FBR%2018.pdf